Striking a balance in the corporate zoo

There is too much stress in the corporate world. As managers, our challenge is to find that optimal stress point which maximises production.

Zookeepers have an interesting problem. Their job is to house animals in a captive, static environment while maintaining both their physical and mental health.

To do this, they acknowledge the need to enrich these environments with interesting objects, physical challenges and even physical threats. These threats have included an open fire in a chimp enclosure and even housing predators and their natural prey together.

According to the zookeepers, a certain level of stress is necessary if the animals are to remain healthy.

As managers we have a different problem. We have too much stress in our corporate enclosures. Our challenge is to find that optimal stress point which maximises production. In today's economic environment this usually means reducing threat levels by eliminating a few predators and throwing water on some of the larger conflagrations.

How does a manager reduce departmental stress levels? We start by recognising we're the primary carriers of departmental stress. Most, almost all, of the stress encountered in the workplace is generated by an employee's immediate superior.

There are exceptions to that statement. The threat of a corporate merger, layoffs, increased competition, and reduced sales all contribute stress outside our immediate control. If we place these larger issues aside, all the other daily stress falls under the control of individual managers.

For example, when the manager drops in and assigns a task, do people assume they must attend to it immediately? By Friday? Or by next week Monday? In some companies, employees assume ad hoc tasks have a far greater sense of urgency than intended. Communicating when something is due, rather than allowing people to make assumptions about deadlines is a necessary first step to reducing unnecessary stress.

The issue of assumptions is aggravated by, and related to, a larger question. What are the priorities of your department? What must be done in the 40 hours available each week and what can/should/must be pushed to the side and even ignored, if the top one or two priorities consume those 40 hours?

Here's an exercise suitable for any staff meeting. Give each employee three 3 x 5 cards and ask them to write down the department's top three priorities, one on each card. And no, they are not allowed to speak with each other while they do this. Collect the cards and group them together.

A perfectly aligned department, with crystal clear priorities, creates three final groups. A typical department will generate somewhere between three and three times the number of employees. The more groups, the poorer the manager is at communicating with their staff and the more chaos and stress.

Having a clear list of priorities is a move in the right direction, but it doesn't mean anything if we have a feeble grasp on the concept of "finite time".

Everyone, especially those of us who take pride in our competence, always have more work on our plate than we could ever get to. We also only have X hours each week in which to eat from that plate. I set X at 40 hours, others set it higher, but wherever we set it, it is finite.

The difficulty of course, is identifying the priorities which fit into those 40 hours of work, and then explaining why the other work will not be squeezed into that 40 hours. It all revolves around being 100% crystal clear on what we decide to do each week and doing it.

As you practise this skill, you become very adept at holding out two hands and stating "on one hand you want this two-hour task, and on the other hand there are several other two-hour tasks on the plate ... which do really want? We'll do that one". The response "We need it all" isn't acceptable ... because it's not possible.

While this is very hard-nosed, people do learn if you say something will get done this week, then it is done this week ... unless they bump it from the list in lieu of some other crisis.

It isn't all smooth sailing of course, but whatever stress it brings about is shouldered by us, the managers, and not our staff. The responsibility for managing staff workload rests with us and not the staff who take their guidance from us.

De Jager is a Canadian writer and consultant.

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